“Sir, have you ever taken drugs?”

Sir, have you ever taken drugs?”

It came out of the blue and took me back a little. It was the middle of break-time and I was standing in the playground. I looked down to see an eleven year old boy from my class was looking up at me.

I answered him directly.

“Yes, when I was a student. I smoked marijuana a couple of times.”

In for a penny, in for a pound…

“And on another occasion I took a drug called LSD.”

He seemed to be waiting for the next revelation.

“I was experimenting with friends. I soon found out I didn’t like the way I felt – marijuana made me feel sick and LSD made me feel dreamy and out of control. I also didn’t like the way my friends behaved, so it was all a bit strange and it frightened me. So I didn’t do it again and looking back on it, I really regret I did it in the first place.”

Actually I was lying.

I had smoked marijuana on a number of further occasions that included times during the early years of my teaching career.

The boy was looking up at me rather quizzically. Did I detect a look on his face that said: “And you call yourself a teacher..?”

I’m not sure. But he certainly didn’t look terribly impressed by my honesty… or lack of it.

These kids are not stupid and they easily see through us when we patronise them, so I’ve often reflected on that incident and how I handled it.

Did I think I would engage him more if I offered him what appeared to be an ‘honest’ answer?

Did I think presenting myself as morally ambiguous might make me seem more human, authentic and ‘for real’?

I may have thought I was offering him a ‘lesson in life’ but was I being a responsible ‘role-model’?

Even now, years later I’m not entirely sure that I have resolved this issue to myself.  But I do believe I had fulfilled the two criteria that I think are very crucial when, as a young teacher I was trying to resolve the tensions and dilemmas of how personal values begin to merge with a growing sense of professional identity.

I tried to put the interests of the child first. And though there was an obvious risk, I tried to use my example as a ‘mistake’ that I had come to regret. I hoped I was answering all three rhetorical questions above with a ‘Yes’ – that he would listen more to a teacher who was flawed but at least appearing to be honest.

But of course I wasn’t totally honest.

Why?

Because I was protecting myself,  my private life,  my reputation and my career.

How would you handle a question like that?

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14 thoughts on ““Sir, have you ever taken drugs?”

  1. Interesting blog post!!

    I’ll keep this response short as I wrote an extensive reply which was lost (probably thanks to my phone). Was too interesting for me to leave alone :0)

    I personally don’t think that the intricacies of a teacher’s personal life should enter the classroom and especially not in this context, and why even bother if not being completely truthful? Student’s like the authority of a teacher as equally they like to know where the limits/barriers are and we need to be able to give them what they need and show them what they are.

    When I was teaching NEETs in FE for two years we covered these subjects frequently and it was naturally unanimous that we simply say, ‘that is a personal question’ rather than playing the game of having to delve into our personal lives at all. We were there to present the facts and lead the students to their own judgements.

    1. Isaac I think that is a very wise and sensible way to approach it and I would commend your approach to all new teachers too.

      I think you are right, protect your privacy and don’t get drawn in to a false sense of intimacy with pupils and students – especially over things that are none of their business. As I said in the blog (and yes it was an incident from my own career) that I was still (even now), not entirely resolved about the way I handled it – and I think I would be much closer to your approach if it happened again.

      On the other hand, consider this.

      I used the word ‘intimacy’ just now. (Using that word feels almost sinister now in these days when the ‘safeguarding’ default position is to view any extra-curricula contact with pupils and students as suspicious, but I use it advisedly). I think you are right that students want to see (and teachers must accept) the responsibility of ‘authority’ including the ‘limits’ and ‘barriers’ you rightly refer to. But I think students also want to see that their teachers are more than just the purveyors of knowledge and skills – that what they do is a ‘role’ that requires an emotional commitment, a personal dedication and even passion to inculcate personal values. I think our pupils and students want also to trust us and need to get a sense of ‘who we are’ in order to do so. That requires a level of intimacy, even in a professional relationship.

      There are times when levels of ‘intimacy’ are appropriate with other professional people too – I’m thinking of moments in my life for example when a doctor, nurse, solicitor, even a police officer has shown personal kindness, honesty and frankness in dealing with me or my family on matters such as a critical health issue, a family bereavement or the trauma of being a victim of crime.

      The kinds of things we reveal in these moments of ‘intimacy’ are a fine judgment call (and I accept mine might not have been that well judged) but I would still assert that they are part of an appropriate professional relationship – perhaps especially in teaching.

      Thanks again for persevering with the blog comment. It certainly challeneged my thinking – thank you.

  2. I honestly love the idea of such ‘intimacy’ as it is natural to my nature, to be honest and to build honest relationships with other people, however, I believe that it is purely idealistic in our profession. For example:

    1) We need to (at least) be seen to behave a certain way to instil trust into parents.

    2) A child hearing a teacher admit to smoking marijuana when they were young could validate their judgement for trying it where they may have otherwise left it alone, because it was an example of a role model ‘surviving’ the ‘ordeal’ and managing to have a productive life all the same.

    3) Furthermore, it is not always easy to judge which students or parent will hold you to account to what you have said, twist what you have said, spread untrue rumours which all ends up bringing yourself and institution into disrepute.

    If we simply look at point 2, then surely that one point is enough to not share past experiences in order to safeguard children because it is unfortunately not an ideal world. Having lived with someone in halls who developed a personality disorder from smoking marijuana, having a friend in France who developed Schizophrenia from taking just one ecstasy tablet, and another friend who has had a permanent rainbow tinge around her vision through taking LSD, I certainly wouldn’t want young people to see taking drugs lightly.

  3. Really interesting scenario! I think the choice that you have to make is between:

    1) Being a teacher who completely separates him/herself from the pupils, refuses to answer questions like the above, and as a result may not gain as much trust from the pupils. In this instance you may be perceived as being more ‘professional’, but also run the risk of seeming a bit ‘stuffy and uptight’ with the kids, especially in secondary schools.

    Or

    2) Answering the question. In this instance, I believe you should be honest with an answer of “no, I’ve never taken drugs”, but if the answer is “yes, I have taken drugs” I think this should always be followed by a statement of regret, emphasising that it was the wrong thing to do.

    If you choose option 2, maybe you’ll gain more trust and potentially have more success in teaching certain students. On the other hand you’ve just admitted, as a role model, that you’ve taken drugs and you’re doing alright with a stable job etc etc.

    I always remember an excellent primary teacher of mine who admitted that he’d tried smoking when he was younger, but that it had made him sick. I respect him for being honest, and I remember more of his lessons than any of my other teachers from primary school. To me, however, this partially justified trying a cigarette myself when I was in early teens, as I remembered people I respected who had tried smoking themselves.

    Difficult!

    1. Thanks Chris – an excellent summary of the dilemmas and sometimes the contradictions of being a teacher and ‘role-model’. I hope you gave up smoking though..!

      But here’s something else to consider… let’s say a student had raised a different question, let’s say it was “Sir, have you ever stolen anything?” or “Sir, have you ever been in trouble with the police?” – would you still apply the same criteria of honesty? I’d be interested in your response…

      Thanks for taking the time for an excellent post.

  4. Luckily I never took up smoking and left alone after that!

    I think I would apply the same criteria of honesty with “Have you ever stolen anything?” or “Have you ever been in trouble with the police?”.

    Again you have to make the decisions I was talking about earlier about how you want to be perceived by the pupils. The school you work for will have employed you knowing what criminal convictions you have, therefore they (and also the government) are happy that you are fit to teach and be a role model for the children in that school. If you are honest with a child, but say that what you did was wrong, then I don’t see a problem with it.

    1. I dont see a problem wth being honest either. We are all human and we all make mistakes. Pretendng we have never done a thing wrong to me is lying and how does that build trust.? Speak the truth, say how wrong it was that you did it and how regretful you feel about it. How do child learn about life? Usually by example i find. So provide a good example.

  5. I’m not a teacher (yet!) but am interested in this topic as I am soon to embark on a PGCE. During my teens and early twenties I was a regular user of various substances which are for most, becoming increasingly socially acceptable. Mostly marijuana smoking.

    I am quite strongly of the belief that a teacher should never admit to taking part in such actvities. Even if this means lying to the students, I don’t think any student would expect you to answer ‘yes’ to this question. It is likely that many students will look up to teachers, also they probably have discussions over which ones they think used to (or still do!) take drugs. As has been said, hearing a teacher say they have taken substances may lead a student to the conclusion that it’s ok. (I’m actually undecided on the acceptability/affects of so called ‘soft’ drug use)

    I am a strong believer in the importance of mentoring the students, as there were a couple of teachers at secondary school who made the whole school experience slightly more bearable for me. The truth is that a high proportion of the students will experiment with illegal substances. Do you want a student to justify their actions to their parents by saying that it’s okay because their teachers used to do it? Some parents and students will have very strong opinions against drug use.

    This is one reason why I think it may be a good idea to have real drug education in schools. I see that it’s a very sensitive issue, but if students were talked to from a fairly young age (11?) about the realistic affects of drugs and how they can impact your life. I honestly believe that limited drug use can be beneficial to some people, mostly in terms of increased empathy. The only drugs education I remember from school (about 10-15 years ago) was that drugs are bad and ecstacy kills you. So, as a student how much faith do you have in what you’re being told when you go to a night club which is full of people who are high on ecstasy? I think that schools should employ someone who is experienced in such matters but also knows enough to give real examples of the problems which can be a result of substance abuse. I’m going slightly off track here…

    I think the answer is tell the truth and say ‘no’ or lie and say ‘no’. Keep an eye on the student, refer them to the theoretical employee previously mentioned, but as far as I can see there is little advantage to the student for saying ‘yes’, or there is certainly too much risk involved.I was educated in a fairly affluent area so my opinion may be different if I had been in one of the ‘rougher’ inner city schools.

    Any thoughts on this would be appreciated as, like I said, I just embarking on secondary teaching as a career and I have been interested for quite some time in the ethics around drug use.

    Cheers!

    1. Hi notonpgceyet, that’s a very interesting post, and thanks for taking the time to make it, but I’m going to (gently) challenge a few things you’ve said (if you don’t mind).

      The first is that you say you think marijuana use is growing in its acceptance. As somebody who went to school in the 60’s and 70’s, I’m really not sure that’s true. It appears to me that there has been quite a backlash in the tolerance of marijuana use in recent years and even decades. For example, people talking about their personal ‘dope smoking’ habits would have been quite tolerated to the extent that it would have been ‘unremarkable’ in the staffrooms I worked in in the late 70’s and early 80’s. But I don’t think it would be tolerated now – indeed, I think it would be seen as very unprofessional at the least and possibly a reason for professional complaint by many. So it’s interesting how attitudes change…

      As to your point about denying drug use whatever the truth and the reality of the situation, I think you have hit on a real conundrum there. I agree with you that there may be little to gain with a student by laying bare the ‘gory details’ of your personal life especially if it inludes things that will compromise you or that will set a bad example. But many respondents to this blog have talked about how students, especially at secondary school age, deeply value the frank and honest mentoring from teachers who seem to understand the pains and pitfalls of being a ‘teenager in crisis’. Indeed you referred to the value of that yourself.

      You are right, that most or at least many parents would object to a teacher admitting ‘criminality’ to their students especially if it could easily be interpreted as encouragement to use drugs. But don’t forget that many parents used drugs or did things they regret and would never admit to their off-spring. So I’m sure they would also understand the conundrum. On the one hand, you want to give good, sound advice to your (children) and students. On the other, you want the advice to be authentic and to ‘touch’ them so they will listen and take it, and sometimes getting through with an important message might mean letting them know that you are telling the truth.

      Not easy is it..? Keep me posted on your progress on the course when you start it – and any ethical dilemmas that arise..!

      Good Luck!

  6. Hmm okay, thanks for that, I never really thought marijuana use was accepted at secondary age so I have learnt something there! I haven’t worked with people that age yet so I can’t claim any wisdom, it still seems like a bad idea (to me!). I brought this up with a friend and they didn’t really agree with me. On a seperate note she said that she used to see a teacher of her’s in a local nightclub on a regular basis, and that he used to ‘hit on’ all the school girls. She did say she was confident that nothing untoward occured and that maybe it was just her teenage perspective.

    Cheers

    1. I didn’t mean to suggest we thought it was ‘acceptable’ – everyone knew it was illegal but the climate of the times tolerated that level of deviancy a little more I think. Apart from that, (I am told on reasonably good authority) that dope was a lot weaker then and didn’t seem to have the side-effects that it appears to carry now – though I stress, I’m not an expert..!

      Anyway, you make another interesting remark about a teacher encounter in a local night club. These days of course, it’s both unprofessional and potentially illegal for a teacher to abuse their position of responsibility and duty of care by entering into (particularly) a sexual relationship with a student. But it’s easy to see where the boundaries could get blurred, especially if the students are over 18 and the teacher is, let’s say, only 22 or 23 years old. At one time such a situation would have been frowned upon rather than taboo – as it is now – and even a famous ex-Chief Inspector of Schools has testified to having such a relationship – it just shows how attitudes change..! While I am not defending professionals entering in to relationships with their clients – I have met a number of professional people over the years, who have admitted to doing so and ended up happily married and with families. Do you think there could ever be a situation where that might be acceptable or tolerated? What do you think?

      Thanks again for your comments on this.

  7. I don’t want to deviate too far from the original post with my response. However I do think there is a link between the drugs and student relationship issues. The girls I mentioned were only 16 at the time, and the club had a reputation for allowing underage people in, so it does seem quite strange!

    I think it’s unproffesional to engage in a relationship with a student. Under 18 years old I’d say was outright wrong. However I think if both parties are 18+ years old then there is really nothing that society/the institution should be getting involved for.

    Along with the usage of illcit substances- if it is taking place outside of the school and is not impacting your work then I don’t think it should be a problem. However the second, for example, a student finds out/sees something unprofessional/illegal then it crosses the line.

    Not many students of secondary age are going to be 18. I just thought of one problem which would be unfair marking of work, especially at university age. Relationships at work are complicated. There was a married couple teaching at my secondary school. However, I do not remember their relationship ever being noticeable (on a side note they were generally disliked), I am not sure how many people knew but I believe that they both left their first marriages, but that was before my time at the school.

    The relationship issue is a bit too complex, without writing a thesis level post! Secondary schools, in my mind, do have a duty of care. Being at a full-time university now it sometimes irritates me that they still feel they can tell you off and do not treat you as an equal. I think relationships at University are unprofessional yet not morally wrong. I don’t think teachers/lecturers should be fired for engaging in a relationship with an (18+) student, however what the correct solution is I’m also not sure. Once you’re 18 you have the ability to make your own decisions so if it ends up impacting your success for whatever reason then unfortunately it’s your own fault!

    1. Another very interesting post notonpgceyet – thanks very much – and you raise a lot of very complicated issues and demonstrating that the answers are not always easy to come by..! Keep me posted on your course.

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